Wales: Heaven on earth
For 10 years now I have been coming up the tiny lane that winds through the Vale of Ewias in Brecon Beacons National Park, always to be struck by the utter peace and remoteness of the ruined priory visible across brilliant green fields.
Wales is famous for its castles — the scenes of ancient feuds and bloodshed. Just as important in my opinion are those places in Wales and elsewhere that, because of a combination of setting and spiritual association, give us a feeling of peace and connection.
Just call me a spiritual tourist.
Tintern Abbey, at Chepstow, about an hour’s drive from Llanthony, is one spot that has long held a special appeal for poets and painters. Equally true of England’s Stonehenge; or Notre Dame, in Paris; Iona, off Scotland; or maybe a remote Buddhist monastery in Nepal.
In each case, we feel ourselves in the presence of something that goes beyond logical explanation, something of the soul.
A place of refuge
It must be true of Llanthony Priory because for 1,500 years and more people have been drawn to this particular spot on spiritual pilgrimages. They include St. David, the patron saint of Wales; the mos who built the priory; Father Ignatius, a 19th century cleric, the Billy Graham of his day; and a diarist-clergyman who had a keen eye for the wenches.
Llanthony’s special qualities have never been better described than by Gerald of Wales, probably the world’s first travel writer, who visited in 1188. The monks, he wrote, “sit in their cloisters in this monastery, breathing the fresh air and gazing up at distant prospects that rise above their own lofty rooftops. And there they see, as far as an eye can reach, mountain peaks which rise to meet the sky and, often enough, herds of deer which graze on their summits.”
I’ve seen no deer herds. But short of that, Gerald had it just about right. Small wonder hermits and holy men, including St. David, came over the mountains or through Gospel Pass to shelter in caves and huts in this holy place.
Among them: William de Lacy, a Norman knight who, out hunting, sheltered from a storm in a tiny chapel dedicated to St. David and decided there and then to lead a life of prayer and contemplation in this peaceful spot. He was joined by a chaplain to Queen Maud and by others who would, by 1108, form the religious community.
However, those Gerald called the “barbarous people” forced the monks to flee, and it was not until 1180 that the 50-year task of building the priory church, one of the great medieval buildings of Wales, began. Today, walking among the walls and pillars (which Turner painted in 1794) you can easily imagine the monks at evensong or working in the fields.
The eccentric monk
Part of the priory is now a hotel, and St. David’s original chapel has been replaced by a parish church, the altar of which is aligned with the rising sun on March 1 – St. David’s Day. (I like one tomb inscription in the nave: “My debts are paid, my grave you see, therefore prepare to follow me.”) So, with the eventual ruin and decline of the priory, the story might have ended. Except for the arrival in 1861 of an eccentric young preacher who styled himself Father Ignatius and whose mission was reviving the religious community.
Ignatius toured Canada and the U.S. winning converts with his hellfire sermons. He would walk up and down the aisles, pointing a finger and crying: “I see him now (the Devil)!” The monk, with his cassock and angelic features, had less luck persuading the authorities to let him rebuild the priory.
So, gathering about him a band of supporters that included a good share of knaves and incompetents, he began in 1870 building his own monastery a couple of miles up the valley.
An early visitor was the Rev. Francis Kilvert, who lived just outside Hay-on-Wye (today, the great second-hand book Mecca), and whose marvelous Kilvert’s Diary gives us an unforgettable snapshot of rural 19th century Wales.
Kilvert, as was his wont, kept an eye out for female talent on his 25-mile hike to Llanthony. “Before the chapel house, beside the brookside, a buxom, comely, wholesome girl with fair hair, rosy face, blue eyes and fair, clear skin stood washing at a tub in the sunshine, up to the elbows of her round, white, lusty arms in soapsuds,” he salivated.
Ignatius’ monastery, which, in the 1920’s would become an arts colony headed by the great typographer and essayist, Eric Gill, still stands, although now in private hands.
Out front though, a white statue of the Virgin Mary near the ruined Abbey Church where Ignatius is buried commemorates an event that still echoes today. On the evening of Aug. 30, 1880, some boys playing in the meadow saw a dazzling light and within it the figure of a woman, hands held up in blessing. The apparition, taken to be the Virgin, was seen on three further occasions.
Today, around the anniversary of that event, crowds gather at the original Llanthony Priory to make a pilgrimage along the stunningly beautiful mountain track to the location of the original sighting. There a service is held by the predominantly Anglican supporters of the Father Ignatius Memorial Trust who remember not the bumbling and eccentric monk but rather a cleric who wanted to draw the church together “in a beautiful, living and satisfactory whole.”
At Llanthony, after all, anything seems possible.